The city of OAXACA sprawls across a grand expanse of deep-set valley, 1600m above sea level. Its colour, folklore, indigenous markets and magnificent colonial centre make it one of the country’s most rewarding destinations even though, with a population of over 250,000, it is well on its way to becoming an industrial city. Many streets are choked and noisy and a thin veil of smog often enshrouds the valley – yet in the colonial centre the city’s provincial charm is hardly affected and just about everything can be reached on foot. Simply being in Oaxaca, wandering through its streets and absorbing its life, is an experience, especially if you happen to catch the city during a fiesta (they happen all the time – see Fiestas in Oaxaca). The city is an important artistic centre, too, with several state-run and private galleries, craft and jewellery masterclasses and regular exhibitions.
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Among the highlights of any visit are the Museo de las Culturas and the Museo Tamayo, the markets (craft shopping in Oaxaca ranks with the best in the country) and the churches of Santo Domingo and La Soledad, along with the nearby archeological sites of Monte Albán and Mitla.
Once central to the Mixtec and Zapotec civilizations, Oaxaca had a limited role during the early years of the Spanish Conquest. Cortés, attracted by the area’s natural beauty, created the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and until the Revolution his descendants held vast estates hereabouts. For practical purposes, though, the area was of little interest to the Spaniards, with no mineral wealth and, due to the rugged mountain terrain, no great agricultural value (though coffee was grown). This meant that the indigenous population was largely left to get on with life and did not have to deal with much outside influence beyond the interference of a proselytizing Church.
Nevertheless, by 1796 Oaxaca had become the third largest city in Nueva España, thanks to the export of cochineal and, later, textile manufacturing. In the nineteenth century it produced two of Mexico’s most influential statesmen: Benito Juárez is commemorated everywhere in Oaxaca, a privilege not shared by Porfirio Díaz, the second most famous Oaxaqueño, whose dictatorship most people have chosen to forget. Thereafter Oaxaca was something of a political backwater until autumn 2006, when it made international headlines as striking teachers occupied the city’s main plaza and clashed with riot police in a dispute that began over wages and mushroomed into protests over corruption and political cronyism; the city is perfectly safe for tourists but occasional protests and demos rumble on to this day.